By Susan Saulny
Mar 31, 2006 (NEW YORK TIMES) — “Help!!!” screamed one of the messages posted by a high school student this week on the Web site www.collegeconfidential.com. Another said: “Desperately need help choosing college!!! Need advice please read!!! Can’t sleep!!!” And pennylane01, on her blog, wrote: “Thank you O powerful (and treacherous) college gods for nothing but my current state of depression and anxiousness. I can’t thank you enough.”
College and graduate school applicants awaiting the good, or bad, news from admissions offices — some already in hand, some coming any day now — have discovered the addictive joys of chronicling their experiences in excruciating and often embarrassing detail online in blogs and on forums.
On Web sites like lunch-money.com, gradschoolforum.com and studentdoctor.net, among many others, participants are Web-casting love songs to admissions committees, describing lucky meals to eat before the mail arrives, comparing SAT scores, typing through tears of rejection and rating the best and worst notification letters. Stanford was nominated for cruelest rejection. Rutgers got a mention for “best acceptance” because its letter came in a “really expensive-looking black folder.”
“Anyone hear from Johns Hopkins yet?” is a typical initial posting on many forums, beginning a so-called thread of dozens, maybe hundreds, of responses to the poster that alternately empathize, ridicule, console and misinform on his or her chances of actually hearing from Johns Hopkins. “(Especially at this late date!!!)” And there are dozens like this: “Rejected … now what?” (Note to readers: the use of multiple punctuation marks is practically required!!! As is the prodigious use of emoticons 🙂 End note!!!)
Some of the Web sites are nonprofit operations that strive to create free online communities of friends. Others provide application help or admissions advice for a fee, while still others are operated by companies with sports and music programming aimed at teenagers, with the blogs and forums as an added attraction.
But the amount of misinformation about the applications process, like any other topic online, is staggering, and there is no way to verify the identify of bloggers and writers. At the same time, guidance counselors and admissions officers — some of whom monitor the sites to check out what is being said about their colleges — suspect that the online chatter may do more to reinforce anxiety than curb it.
“It’s really accelerated in the past year to the point where there is a ton of bad information out there,” said Robert Massa, the vice president of enrollment at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. “People need to realize that anybody can say anything on the Internet.”
In the “if you can’t beat them, join them” spirit, the Web site for Dickinson, like that of many other colleges, hosts its own admissions blogs, Mr. Massa said, intended to give prospective students an authentic window into the Dickinson experience.
Sally Rubenstone, the editor of collegeconfidential.com, which offers admissions advice and counseling, wrote in an e-mail response to a reporter’s question that she wondered whether online discussions were helpful “or are we, instead, merely fanning the flames of fear in an already overly stressed process.”
“Sometimes high school seniors should head to a movie or out for a jog and away from the keyboard and admissions angst,” she added.
Ms. Rubenstone acknowledged that sometimes the information provided was “downright wrong” but said she believed that “over all, it’s on target.”
Bari Meltzer Norman, who runs www.mycollegecounselor.com, which offers admissions advice, said chat rooms were mostly “amplified neighborhood chatter, much of which is pure speculation.”
“Almost all of it feeds anxiety,” Ms. Norman added. “I see people on those boards asking questions that should be directed at a knowledgeable college adviser.”
Jane F. Ross, an education consultant in Manhattan, said some parents were upset after reading postings about students who had been admitted to select colleges, yet had lower test scores or weaker grades than their children.
“It had not even occurred to these parents (well-educated and generally sophisticated from all appearances) that perhaps the postings to the site were not entirely reliable,” Ms. Ross wrote in an e-mail message.
“Perhaps it is simply a sign of the times,” she added, “that the college admissions process itself seems increasingly mystical, so families and students are seeking soothsayers in the forms of blogs and chat rooms.”
Certainly, there is inherent drama in the story of admissions. The narrative arc can stretch for months like a good soap opera in some cases, from the time in early fall when students decide where to apply, through SAT’s, Medical School Admissions Test, transcripts lost and found, class rank ascending and descending — to the nail-biting, double tick-tock countdowns of application deadlines and the notification period, which is in the spring. And the public can listen in on the kind of conversations that used to be shared only between friends, with college counselors — or with the colleges themselves.
Some writers make entirely unveiled cries for help, like this message posted on Tuesday on collegeconfidential: “I totally feel like I am a failure and I have failed my parents as a son … o be honest, I feel like committing suicide.”
He wrote that he had applied to 13 colleges and, as of early this week, had been rejected by 4 of them.
“What crime did I do to deserve this?” he wrote.
The first response to his message offered a colon and open parenthesis in the form of a frowning face. The second response advised applying to “an easier but good school.” William Slocum, a counselor at Lenape High School in Medford, N.J., said the sharing of emotions on Web sites was cathartic.
“Any forum that allows an individual to process and validate his/her emotions can be therapeutic,” Mr. Slocum said.
Still, even in the age of sharing, the best advice may be this: Say nothing. “I almost always advise my students not to share with anyone where they are applying (verbally or in chat rooms),” Steven Roy Goodman, an education consultant in Washington, wrote in an e-mail message.
Mr. Goodman explained that this way, “my students can avoid having friends, acquaintances, and neighbors constantly ask if they have heard from College X or University Y.”
But some news is good to share. On livejournal.com last week, came this: “Yay! I made USC. =)”
The message ended with this: “Tiiiired. Off to sleep. Whoo hoo. College stress gone.”